Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University Education

The duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin was the last German state to deny university admission to women. When it relented, the decision brought to an end a debate over higher education for women in Germany that had begun in the 1860’s. The debate and its eventual conclusion highlighted the highly gendered nature of German society and the ongoing conflict between conservative and progressive German states.

Summary of Event

After the founding of the German Empire in 1871, rapid economic development pushed single, middle-class women out of the home and into a number of kinds of jobs, with many becoming governesses or teachers in girls’ schools. To have access to higher-level occupations, they were required to have university educations. However, the nine-year secondary school, called a “gymnasium,” that prepared students for a university education was for boys only, and students had to pass the Abitur, the final exam of the gymnasium, in order to be admitted to a German university. A women’s movement for higher education arose in reaction to this situation, and, combined with a number of contributing factors, it resulted in the German educational system being opened to women on a state-by-state basis. This process was completed in 1909, when the German duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the final holdout, allowed female students to matriculate at the University of Rostock, the oldest university in northern Europe. Women;education opportunities
Education;German women
University of Rostock
[kw]Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University Education (1909)[Mecklenburg Schwerin Admits Women to University Education (1909)]
[kw]Women to University Education, Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits (1909)
[kw]University Education, Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to (1909)
[kw]Education, Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University (1909)
Women;education opportunities
Education;German women
University of Rostock
[g]Germany;1909: Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University Education[02310]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;1909: Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University Education[02310]
[c]Education;1909: Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University Education[02310]
[c]Social issues and reform;1909: Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University Education[02310]
[c]Women’s issues;1909: Mecklenburg-Schwerin Admits Women to University Education[02310]
Lange, Helene
Kettler, Hedwig
Otto, Louise

The forerunners of the women’s campaign for higher education can be traced back to writings in the eighteenth century. On the Civil Improvement of Women, written by Theodor von Hippel in 1792, was a landmark book, and the General German Women’s Association, General German Women’s Association founded by Louise Otto in 1864, was the first German women’s organization to raise the issue of female students. From 1888 to the beginning of the twentieth century, the association petitioned repeatedly for female higher education. The Association for the Reform of Women’s Education, Association for the Reform of Women’s Education founded by Hedwig Kettler in 1888, argued for women’s admission to university study on the ground of economic opportunities for single, middle-class women. Like the other association, it regularly sent petitions to the state ministries of education and state governments on behalf of girls’ education.

Helene Lange, the most famous advocate of female higher education in Germany, put the issue in a wider political context. Her pamphlet Die höhere Mädchenschule und ihre Bestimmung: Begleitschrift zu einer Petition an das preussische Unterrichtsministerium und das preussische Abgeordnetenhaus (1887; the higher girls’ school and its mission, known later as the “Yellow Brochure”) Die höhere Mädchenschule und ihre Bestimmung (Lange) sparked public interest in female education and was often used to accompany campaign petitions. In addition to calling for general education for women, Lange proposed university-track education for those women who wished to be trained in medicine and teaching.

Women’s university study met strong opposition from academics and state officials. An influential argument was based on differences between males and females. Professor of anatomy Theodor von Bischoff Bischoff, Theodor von claimed women had smaller brains and consequently inferior intellectual ability. The presence of women at the university was also considered dangerous to the moral well-being of the male students. Professor of political economy Lorenz von Stein Stein, Lorenz von considered female emancipation as disruptive to the social order and argued that when women left the domestic sphere to enter the workplace, they would drive down male workers’ earnings.

Although the validity of these arguments was challenged by professors sympathetic to the women’s movement, other arguments were difficult to dispute because German universities, as professor of law Otto Gierke Gierke, Otto declared, were institutions for men only. First, because a girls’ school did not prepare students for university study, it could not provide them with an Abitur. Universities found it impossible to accept students without an Abitur, because no equivalent standards existed. Second, since university education was tied to the job demands at all governmental levels, female graduates from universities would pose a threat to the male monopoly on government employment and the vote. Finally, the purpose of university study—to form an educated middle class—was geared toward male students only. The mission of university education, as one professor described it, was to find out if there was a man inside the student. Another professor declared universities were established for the male youth and adapted to the male mind.

A number of universities allowed women to audit courses in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s. At Heidelberg, for example, women could audit with the professor’s permission after 1869. Some women audited without even official permission at Berlin in the early 1870’s. However, in 1878 the Prussian Ministry of Education allowed women to audit only after they had permission from the ministry, the university senate, the faculty, and the individual professor. As a result of this decree, most women were unable to audit courses. By the 1890’s, most universities allowed women to audit again, and only the university’s or professor’s permission was required. Heidelberg, which had banned women after 1873, allowed them to audit courses in the faculty of mathematics and natural sciences in 1891 and in the faculty of philosophy in 1895. Berlin opened its door to women in 1892; seventy women audited in the 1895-1896 semester. At Prussian universities, 223 women were allowed to audit in the 1896-1897 semester.

The first state-controlled girls’ equivalent to the boys’ gymnasium was opened in Baden in 1894. This German state was also the first to admit female university students, in 1900. Other states followed suit: Bavaria in 1903, Wurttemberg in 1904, Saxony in 1906, Thuringia in 1907, and Prussia in 1908. The last university to admit female students, in 1909, was the University of Rostock in Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The duchy’s intransigence to their admission could be traced back to 1897, when a professor at Rostock defended his position on the women’s campaign for university study. Felix Lindner, professor of Romance and English philology, believed that women, due to their nature, were not fit for university study. He argued that women could not maintain a broad perspective because they paid more attention to petty things, and women could not absorb themselves as deeply in their studies as men. Since university study was established for men, women could not benefit from it. Mecklenburg-Schwerin also defended its uncompromising position in 1906, when it declared that universities not only taught facts but also trained students in masculine excellence.

A couple of contributing factors aside from the pressure from women’s organizations could explain why such a state as Mecklenburg-Schwerin finally decided to admit female students. First, the long-established tradition of liberalism in southern German states (Baden and Wurttemberg, for example) gradually prevailed over the weakening influence of Prussian militarism in northern Germany. Second, Germans finally realized that their educational system was no longer one of the most advanced in the world, at least in terms of advancement of women’s education. In America, women had been admitted to universities since 1853; in France, since 1861; and in England, since 1878.


With its decision to admit women to its university, Mecklenburg-Schwerin brought a final success to German women’s campaign for access to higher education. German women were legally able to study at the same places and for the same degrees as men. Their presence revolutionized the old German concept of what it meant to be educated. German universities, like universities the world over, fashioned students into citizens based on a particular, culturally specific model of citizenship. Moreover, as with other universities in other nations and eras, the physical presence of people who differed from the dominant image of the citizen—then assumed to be male—represented an inherent, visible challenge to that model. Thus the admission of women to German universities questioned German assumptions about gender roles as well as the role of class in citizenship and the proper functioning of the state. Women;education opportunities
Education;German women
University of Rostock

Further Reading

  • Frevert, Ute. Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation. New York: Berg, 1989. Provides a synoptic account of two hundred years of women’s history in Germany and investigates the legacy of inequality between the sexes.
  • Herminghouse, Patricia A., and Magda Mueller, eds. German Feminist Writings. New York: Continuum, 2001. Provides a selection from the spectrum of German feminist thought over the last 250 years. The writings are grouped into five clusters: art and literature, education, work, politics, and gender.
  • Mazon, Patricia M. Gender and the Modern Research University: The Admission of Women to German Higher Education, 1865-1914. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Focuses on women’s long fight to be admitted to German universities, pointing out the fundamental characteristics that shaped the universities and imperial politics.

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